n Julius Caesar, a Roman mob inflamed by the duplicitous Mark Antony seizes upon a poet named Cinna en route to the late dictator’s funeral. Mistaking him for a conspirator by the same name, the frenzied citizens call for his head. So choleric are these Romans that they do not even relent upon learning that the man is instead Cinna the poet. “Tear him for his bad verses!” they shout by way of rationalization. Mere facts, Shakespeare suggests, won’t trump blind lust for destruction.
A few years ago, impassioned online gangs went after social scientist Mark Regnerus with similar heat—only instead of bad verses, they wanted him cyber-torn for good sociology. Like Cinna, Regnerus was in the wrong place at a devious time. In 2012—just as the push for same-sex marriage was nearing success—this then-associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin ambled into the public square with an article in Social Science Research called: “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study.” While acknowledging that same-sex households exhibit a diversity of behaviors and forms, he also interpreted the results to mean that children in such homes face higher risks of certain outcomes, including unemployment, receiving public assistance, and lowered academic achievement.
In other words, his paper tacitly called into question one of the axioms of the times, which is that sexual minorities are just like sexual majorities, dammit—except when sexual minorities are being better.
As Andrew Ferguson documented in an essay for the Weekly Standard, “Revenge of the Sociologists,” what happened next was “brute cultural warfare.” A letter published in the Huffington Post by several of Regnerus’s colleagues accused him of “besmirching” the good name of the university. Another letter of protest was signed by 200 scholars and researchers and published in Social Science Research. Aspersions were cast about the funding provided for the study by the Witherspoon Institute and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Public condemnations were issued by the American Sociological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Medical Association. A formal complaint of “scientific misconduct” was submitted to his university. And those were just some of the unfunny things that happened on the way to our new public forum, where many things can be said freely so long as they do not pertain to sexual minorities—a group as sacrosanct in some venues today as the Vestal Virgins were in Cinna’s time.
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What’s surprising in retrospect wasn’t the ferocity of the attack. It’s that despite having become the object of the most orchestrated academic hate-in within recent memory, Regnerus remains a professor at that same university. This credit to the tenure system is all to the good, because from that perch he has now delivered one of the most coolly argued and fiercely true books yet written about the sexual revolution and its contemporary fallout.
Cheap Sex is not the first exercise in applying economic principles to the radically changed marketplace of sex, as its author notes. Previous thinkers including Anthony Giddens—whose formative book The Transformation of Intimacy appeared a quarter-century ago—influence these pages, as do economists and social scientists like Roy Baumeister, Kathleen Vohs, Gary Becker, George Akerlof, Janet Yellen, Timothy Reichert, and others. Even so, Regnerus’s achievement in Cheap Sex is singular. He builds on a variety of foregoing insights to turn economic analysis of the sexual revolution into a gripping, panoramic portrait of the times, illustrated in vivid statistical color.
Drawing on surveys and other sources—particularly a data collection project headed by the author called Relationships in America, which interviewed just under 15,000 Americans between the ages of 18 and 60 in 2014—and written with empathy and verve, this is a book that even its most ardent detractors should find hard to dismiss. It’s often said—or was often said by President Bill Clinton’s defenders, anyway—that everyone lies about sex. Not here. Cheap Sex delivers the empirical truth about life after the contraceptive revolution. The result is “not an elegy for a lost era,” Regnerus insists, but instead a sober and sobering “account of how young Americans relate today: what they think about relationships, how they interact sexually with their partners, what they hope for romantically.”
Data sets and regression analyses aside, the argument of Cheap Sex is straightforward. Sex is now less expensive than ever before, because its highest “costs”—pregnancy, childbearing, childrearing, and the rest of the procreative bundle—have been reduced by technological revolution(s). As Regnerus puts it, “Cheaper sex has been facilitated by three distinctive technological developments: (1) the wide uptake of the Pill as well as a mentality stemming from it that sex is ‘naturally’ infertile; (2) mass-produced high-quality pornography; and (3) the advent and evolution of online dating/meeting services.”
So just how cheap is sex today?
Cheap enough to explain, for starters, two commonly dissected and lamented phenomena—the failure of many men to launch, and to commit. The rising numbers of men procrastinating or opting out of the marriage market aren’t due to the commonly held belief that these men are “afraid” to settle down. It’s rather that cheap sex, whether via pornography or the real thing, has demolished for many the incentive system of mating for life. Tinder and related apps, meanwhile, make finding a partner for sex cheaper and sometimes easier than mailing a letter. In another interesting measure of the declining price of sex, prostitution is apparently diminishing—just as the book’s economic analysis would have suggested, given the inundated marketplace.
Like any other revolution, this one has winners and losers; to say that sex is cheap isn’t to say it’s evenly distributed. But in a time when 20-25% percent of men and women say they first had sex with their current partner “after we met, but before we began to consider ourselves in a relationship,” and 45% of women say they “first had sex with their current partner no later than the first two weeks of the relationship,” buying the proverbial bovine makes less sense than ever. Consider a story the author cites from Vanity Fair about one male subject, who reports having “‘hooked up with three girls,’ thanks to the Internet and to Tinder, and…over the course of four nights…spent a total of $80 between them. And he got what he came for with all three.” How’s that for the arithmetic of cheap sex?
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Regnerus does a lively job of illuminating some of the paradoxes afloat in this flooded marketplace, among them that women are often more likely to have sex early on with men they don’t see as marriage partners; and that women are less dependent on men’s material resources than ever before, even as the same change has made it harder for them to secure what many want most, i.e., marriage and family. Yes, there are innate differences between the sexes, and they aren’t sugarcoated here. That fact alone will ensure that some people who ought to read this book won’t, and that some of those who do read it will be agitated beyond reason. The author correctly anticipates such objections, though: “You may prefer I not speak about sex in this way. That’s fine. But your preference for a different lingo about sex does not make any of this untrue.”
Chapter Four, “The Cheapest Sex,” is a particularly eye-opening 36 pages on the subject of contemporary pornography—who uses it, how often and how much, and how that use is affecting relationships with live human beings. “Men can [now] see more flesh in five minutes than their great-grandfathers could in a lifetime,” Regnerus notes. “In other words, humans are not evolutionarily familiar with the accessibility, affordability, and anonymity that Internet pornography offers.” The result of this tsunami, he also shows (albeit without “judging”) is exactly comparable to the glut of cheap sugar in the modern food market: obesity, compulsion, and sickness. Pornography has become our newest disease of civilization.
Readers might be curious to know just how many men out there, proportionately, may be looking up from their laptop or phone with what journalist Pamela Paul has called “pornified eyes.” In their Relationships in America survey, Regnerus and his team ask the simple question, “When did you last intentionally look at pornography?” Forty-three percent of men and 9% of women reported having viewed it in the preceding week. Among 18 to 39 year olds, the numbers increased to 46% of men and 16% of women. Just as salient, 24% of men reported their most recent use of pornography as either “today” or “yesterday”—a number that points to “possible compulsive behavior,” the author explains.
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Among the virtues of Cheap Sex is its tacit demolition of the libertarian pretense of pornography as harmless spectator sport. As Regnerus observes and documents, digital pornography “replaces sex (for some), augments it (for others) and alters real sexual connection with real persons. It has changed sex and altered relationships in ways that iTunes has not changed music” (emphasis added).
Twenty-four-year-old “Carlos,” for instance, illustrates just some of the ways in which putting pornography first disrupts relations with 3-D humans. He keeps a collection of sex tapes made with former partners; his serial girlfriends dislike this habit of his and sometimes break off relations because of it. It also annoys his current partner when “I can’t function just cuz I’m too desensitized,” as he puts it. The dissatisfaction with “real life” people, i.e., typically women, that’s fomented by smut is also part of this picture. As another subject puts it, “If you’re, you know, looking at porn every single day, you’re gonna want something else. You’re not gonna want what you’ve got. There’s no way you could be happy with it.” A third makes the point succinctly: “You become dissatisfied with the person you’re with. How could you not?”
Regnerus ventures the thought that this variant of sexual obesity, particularly, is having political reverberations—in effect, skewing the polity in a more liberal direction. “Viewing pornographic material is OK,” for example, is a statement that maps adroitly onto the spectrum, with 63% of “very liberal” respondents agreeing, as opposed to only 19% of “very conservative” ones. Even more intriguing, “last pornography use” emerges as “(very) significant predictor of men’s support for same-sex marriage.” Why might that be? “Contrary to what very many people might wish to think,” Regnerus hypothesizes in one of the book’s countercultural digressions, “men’s support for redefining marriage may not be the product of actively adopting ideals about expansive freedoms, rights, liberties, and a noble commitment to fairness. It may be, at least in part, a passive byproduct of regular exposure to the diversity of sex found in contemporary porn.”
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Cheap Sex closes with a list of predictions about what Regnerus foresees by the year 2030: even cheaper sex, as ever-more sophisticated pornography combines with computer operating systems of the kind portrayed in the 2013 movie Her, resulting in human beings who form their emotional bonds ever more online; a weakening of age-of-consent laws; a continuing increase in unmarried Americans; a recession of same-sex marriage now that the right to it has been established; more experimentation with same-sex behavior, due largely to the “teaching” role of pornography; increased polyamory; and the failure of organized religion to interfere beyond the margins with any of the above. These are bold prognostications, and readers can adjudicate them best by studying the book and its data in full.
Does all of it mean we’re doomed? No doubt some readers will find these pages dystopian—a swirling mass of many Paolos and Francescas, destined by the world after the Pill never to connect. That said, it’s also possible that the encouraging appearance of this book itself is of a piece with, and signals, something else.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the Catholic papal encyclical whose reiteration of traditional moral teaching and unapologetic rejection of the sexual revolution made it one of the most reviled documents of the modern age. For many years afterwards, few people could be found in public forthrightly defending those disparaged teachings apart from those popes charged with speaking ex cathedra (and not all churchmen, at that).
Now, half a century into the revolution, it’s a different scene. The most vigorous defenses of traditionalist teaching these days are emanating for the most part from outside the Church. A rising tide of refugees, fleeing the damages chronicled so well in Cheap Sex, now contributes new voices, new critiques, and sometimes even new communities designed to counteract exactly what Regnerus and others describe—all dedicated to a more expansive and ennobled vision of human worth than the one now dominant.
Religious and social groups that didn’t exist a decade or two ago, pledged to a different kind of “resistance,” have sprung up on even some of the most secular campuses. Online and other resources for undoing the harms of pornography and addiction abound, religious and non-religious. The popularity and wide discussion of Rod Dreher’s call for a “Benedict Option” is more proof of a growing desire among some to say good riddance to what the revolution hath wrought. Even in one of the most unpromising precincts of all—Hollywood—overdue revulsion against men cloaked in the revolution’s prerogatives has finally broken through to the surface, as the belated yet seemingly authentic massive outcry over disgraced director Harvey Weinstein, et al. and ad nauseum, goes to show.
As Leo Tolstoy once said after reporting in excruciating detail about the goings-on in a slaughterhouse, “We can’t pretend we don’t know these things.” The same is true of the empirical and human record of our time, following the technological shocks and aftershocks chronicled by Mark Regnerus in Cheap Sex. Like a number of other revision-minded books published during the past few years alone, this one will make it harder to plead ignorance about the wreckage out there. Maybe all this movement under the cultural surface is registering somewhere. Maybe, just maybe, the Great Pretend over the sexual revolution is starting to crack.
1Ovid’s erotic poetry portrays love as an enterprise in which women and men engage together, playfully and creatively. His writings acknowledge that the production and consumption of poetry about love are enterprises in which women engage too. Most notably, he represents Heroides 15 as a letter in elegiac verse from the celebrated sixth century BCE female poet Sappho to her young male lover Phaon ; at Amores 2.8. 26 and 34, when adopting the role of poet-speaker, he also announces his plans to write in the persona of Sappho. He makes complimentary remarks about Sappho and her poetry elsewhere in his works as well : at ArsAmatoria 3.331, where, assuming the persona of praeceptor amoris, he proffers erotic advice to his female readers ; and at Tristia 2. 365-366, where, speaking in his own person about his poetry after his banishment to the Black Sea, he defends his choice of erotic subject matter to Augustus.
2What is more, at lines 59-60 of his autobiographical Tristia 4.10 Ovid confesses that in his Amores he referred to his beloved by a name, “not her own” (nomine non vero) but that of another, earlier, Greek female poet, Corinna. In Tristia 3.7, another self-revelatory and self-exculpatory poem from exile, Ovid addresses a young female literary protégée whom he calls Perilla ; after invoking Sappho as a literary model, he warns Perilla in 29-30 against writing verses that teach others how to love, although not against composing erotic poetry itself. In a more oblique fashion, he pointedly characterizes various female figures in his epic Metamorphoses as skillful erotic communicators, chief among them Thisbe in Book 4. While he does not specifically portray Thisbe as composing poetry, or even as engaged in the creation of narrative art through weaving like Arachne or Philomela, the eloquent words he places in Thisbe’s mouth are, of course, in dactylic hexameter. 1
3Consequently, it is both striking and surprising that Ovid’s discussions of Roman love poetry, whether voiced as poet-speaker, as praeceptor amoris or in propria persona, do not evidently acknowledge the work of any Roman women love poets, especially in view of the prominence that he accords Sappho not only in his erotic elegiac works but also his poems from exile. My discussion attempts to account for this puzzling feature of his writing. I will argue that Ovid does make such acknowledgments, but in a subtle and indirect way, through allusions, at times to speak critically of Roman women’s love poetry. I will also maintain that Ovid diminishes the contributions of Roman women love poets precisely because of the prominence accorded Sappho in his work, in order to identify himself with Sappho, as her true Roman counterpart.
Sappho and Roman Women Love Poets in Tristia 2
4In Tristia 2, a lengthy plea written in his own person to Augustus from exile, Ovid refers to numerous writers of love poetry so as to justify his own literary practices. At lines 361 ff., defending the content of what he himself has written, he cites a roster of first Greek and then Roman predecessors who celebrated erotic passion without suffering adverse consequences. Significantly, the second in his roster of Greek love poets is Sappho, about whom he states at 365-366, Lesbia quid docuit Sappho, nisi amarepuellas ? /tuta tamen Sappho, “what did Sappho of Lesbos teach, other than girls how to love – or how to love girls – yet Sappho was safe.”
5Before we turn to Ovid’s comparable roster of Roman poets who wrote on erotic topics with impunity, we should accord attention to his use of the adjective “Lesbia” in the context of invoking Sappho. By the final decades of the first century BCE, well before Ovid left Rome for Tomis, this word was closely associated with the love poetry, and the female love interest, of his illustrious and admired predecessor Catullus.2 The ambiguity of the phrase amare puellas is noteworthy as well. It testifies to the tradition that Sappho not only instructed young women in the arts of loving, but also instructed her poetic audience about how to love young women. Yet Ovid does not say outright that those loved by the young women depicted in Sappho’s poetry, or that those depicted as loving them, were other women, among them Sappho herself. This proves to be a significant ambiguity in view of how he has characterized Sappho elsewhere, a detail to which we will return later.
6Ovid’s roster, at Tristia 2. 421 ff., of Roman poets who wrote on erotic topics, immediately contrasts with his preceding list of Greek love poets, since it contains no female Roman counterpart to Sappho. Indeed, at first glance it seems to contain no references to any woman poet. But close inspection suggests that Ovid may well be alluding to several women poets without mentioning them directly. Most important, in lines 427-430 he states about Catullus, the third poet on his list, sic sua lascivo cantata estsaepe Catullo/femina, cui falsum Lesbia nomen erat. Nec contentus ea, multos vulgavit amores, in quibus ipse suum fassus adulterium est, “often in this way his woman, to whom the false name Lesbia was assigned, was celebrated in song by sexually playful Catullus. And not satisfied with her he broadcast many love affairs (or widely circulated many love poems), in which he himself admitted to his own adultery.” 3
7While Ovid does not explain Catullus’ choice of “false name” for his “woman” here, Catullus’ decision to represent his beloved by the pseudonym Lesbia clearly honored Sappho of Lesbos as a poet. In addition to adopting Sappho’s distinctive meter in 11 and 51, translating Sappho L-P 31 in 51, and evoking her words in 62, Catullus compliments Caecilius’ female beloved with the phrase Sapphica puella/Musa doctior at 35.15-16.4 Consequently, by mentioning the actual name that Catullus used for his beloved, Ovid highlights Catullus’ decision to pay literary homage to Sappho, homage Ovid himself awards to Sappho by including her in his roster of Greek poets.
8The second century CE author Apuleius casts further light on Catullus’ choice of the pseudonym Lesbia at Apologia 10. There he notes : Eadem igitur opera accusent C. Catullum quod Lesbiam pro Clodia nominarit, et Ticidam similiter quod quae Metella erat Perillamscripserit, “For that reason therefore let [those who criticize the use of pseudonyms] accuse Catullus because he supposedly used the name Lesbia for Clodia, and likewise Ticidas because he supposedly wrote of a woman as Perilla who was actually called Metella.” On the basis of this statement, as well as of other evidence from Catullus’ own poetry and elsewhere, the woman he calls Lesbia is usually identified as Clodia Metelli : a sister of the demagogue Publius Clodius Pulcher, and the wife of Q. Caecilius Metellus Celer, consul in 60 BCE.5 By referring to Clodia Metelli as “Lesbia”, moreover, Catullus may have acknowledged that Clodia Metelli was herself a poet, a counterpart as well as a reader of the Greek Sappho. Ovid may have highlighted Catullus’ decision to identify his beloved by the pseudonym “Lesbia” for the same reason.
9After all, Catullus represents Lesbia as speaking, and speaking “poetically”, in various poems. In poem 36, for example, he portrays her as criticizing his own poetry ; in poem 70 he represents her as recalling earlier Greek Hellenistic poetry with her professions of love to him.6 Furthermore, when attempting to discredit Clodia Metelli in chapter 64 of his Pro Caelio, a courtroom speech on behalf of a privileged young man who had once been Clodia’s lover, Catullus’ contemporary Cicero refers to her with the noun poetria : [velut haec tota fabella] veteris et plurimarum fabularum poetriae., “[this entire little fictional story] by a female poet, of longstanding and a very great number of narrative plots” Other authors, including – as we will see – Ovid himself, use this same noun, of Greek origin and signifying “female poet”, to refer to Sappho.
10To be sure, Cicero utters these words sarcastically, to ridicule Clodia’s scheming and plotting. But Cicero’s sarcastic tone does not rule out the possibility that Clodia actually wrote poetry. Indeed, his statement is more pointed if she was in fact a poet, a writer of performed words. By the same token, in chapter 116 of his Pro Sestio, Cicero says that Clodia’s brother Clodius omnia sororis embolia novit, “knows all of his sister’s ballet interludes.” Here again Cicero employs a Greek word – embolia – to describe Clodia’s literary activities. While he may use this exotic term as a euphemism for her sexual activities, he may well indicate, at the same time, that she composed “dance performances.” 7
11Second, at Tristia 2.437-438, a few lines after his remarks on Catullus, Ovid adduces, as both precedent and justification for his erotic poetic endeavors, a woman who wrote under a pseudonym, et quorum libris modo dissimulata Perillae/nomine, nunc legitur dictaMetella suo, “and in whose books Metella, recently disguised under the name of Perilla, now is read under her actual name.” This Metella appears to have been [Caecilia] Metella, a daughter of Clodia Metelli, the woman whom Catullus called Lesbia in his poetry. As we have seen as well, Apuleius identifies Perilla as the pseudonym for Metella that Ticidas used.8
12Significantly, Ovid mentions Ticidas as a reputable forerunner in the realm of erotic poetry a few lines earlier, at 433-434 of this same passage from Tristia 2. There he describes Ticidas as using explicit sexual language : quid referam Ticidae, quid Memmi carmen, apud quos/rebus adest nomen nominibusque pudor ?, “what am I to say about the poetry of Ticidas or of Memmius, in whose writings there is an explicit naming of things, and shame attached to the names.” Admittedly, Ovid says nothing here about how or what Metella wrote, or that she was also evidently written about in the poetry of Ticidas. It is possible to construe what Ovid says about Perilla – that “until recently” Perilla was a name disguising Metella – primarily as testimony that only readers since Ticidas’ day, such as Ovid himself, been able to learn the actual identity of Ticidas’ celebrated inamorata, and that Ticidas, unlike Ovid himself, wrote about an actual woman. But Ovid’s reference to Metella may still be interpreted as evoking a poetic precedessor who is “read”, another Roman female counterpart to Sappho.
13Finally, at lines 440-441 of this passage, Ovid mentions the sexually provocative poems of one Servius : nec minus Hortensi, nec sunt minus improbi Servi carmina ? quis dubitet nomina tanta sequi ?, “No less improper are the verses of Hortensius, or those of Servius. Who would hesitate to follow such great names ?” Here Ovid refers to Servius Sulpicius Rufus, an illustrious political leader and jurist who died in 43 BCE. Many scholars view this Servius as the father of the Augustan female poet Sulpicia.9
14Eleven “Sulpicia elegies” – 8 through 18 in the third book of poems by Tibullus – portray her as engaging in a mutually gratifying, illicit love affair with a young man she calls by the pseudonym Cerinthus. These elegies apparently owe their initial publication to the literary patronage of Sulpicia’s maternal uncle, Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus. A distinguished general, statesman and longtime supporter of Augustus, Messalla is celebrated for championing the literary efforts of Tibullus, and of Ovid himself.10
15In Amores 3.9, Ovid mourns the death of the youthful Tibullus, an event that can be dated to 19 BCE, the same year in which Vergil died, quoting from and rewriting Tibullus’ own verses in 1.1 and 1.3.11 He invokes Tibullus as a role model at Tristia 2. 447-464, summarizing the contents of Tibullus’ love poetry. But Ovid makes no direct reference in Tristia 2, or anywhere else in his verses, to the poetry of Sulpicia herself.
Addressing Perilla, and invoking Sappho, in Tristia 3.7
16We should pay careful attention to Ovid’s indirect way of referring to these Roman women who wrote, or at least appear to have written, love poetry – his mention of Sulpicia’s father but not Sulpicia herself ; his oblique mode of acknowledging that Metella wrote verse of an erotic nature ; his reference to the pseudonym, paying tribute to the poet Sappho, that Catullus employed for his beloved – when legitimating his love poetry to Augustus in Tristia 2. It sharply contrasts with his direct invocation of Sappho, and the details that he provides about her, a few lines earlier. But another poem, also written after Ovid’s exile in 8 CE – Tristia 3.7 – merits note in helping to explain his apparent strategy of downplaying these women as literary predecessors and justifications.
17Here, writing in propria persona as he does in Tristia 2, Ovid offers literary advice to a young woman poet, whom he also calls Perilla, presumably in homage to the pseudonym used by her predecessor Metella. Ovid asks her if “you are still committed to our common pursuit, and compose learned poetry, though not in your father’s way” (11-12 studiiscommunibus ecquid inhaeres/doctaque non patrio carmina more canis) ; he characterizes her talent as a rare dowry (14 [natura] raras dotes ingeniumque dedit) ; he takes credit for being her first instructor, “as a father to his daughter, guide and comrade” (18 utque pater natae duxque comesquefui). Owing to this reference, and to Ovid’s statement that she will greet his letter “while seated with her sweet mother” (3 dulci cum matre sedentem), she is thought by some to be Ovid’s stepdaughter.12
18More significantly, and as noted earlier, in lines 19-20, Ovid tells Perilla that if the same ignes, “fires” “remain in your breast,” only the work of the Lesbian bard, Sappho, will surpass yours”, sola tuum vates Lesbia vincet opus. Since Sappho wrote love poetry, and since Ovid also refers to the passionate love poems of the Augustan Propertius with the word ignes at Tristia 4.10.45, he may be characterizing Perilla’s earlier poems as also erotic in nature. Yet even though Ovid worries that his departure and banishment have caused her to neglect her poetry writing, he vehemently insists that Perilla not follow his example, contrasting her “father’s way” with her own “virtuous ways” (13 pudicos mores). He concludes Tristia 3.7 by reminding her of the immortality available to poets, saying that he will be read as long as Rome rules the world. But, in reassuring Perilla about her literary potential, he urges that “no woman or man learn from your writings how to love” (30 neve vir a scriptis discat amaretuis), in the way that they have from his own poetry, and – as he specifies in Tristia 2 – from that of Sappho.
19Ovid’s admonishing words to his addressee here, a contemporary Roman female poet likely to have written about love, and at risk of adopting an amatory instructional role like the one which he himself assumes in the Ars Amatoria, is understandable in light of his banishment, and of the role possibly played by that poem in his punishment. At Tristia 2.207, he attributes his exile to a “mistake and a poem” (carmen et error). To be sure, he does not identify this poem by name. Yet when addressing Augustus later in the poem, at Tristia 2. 239 ff., he specifically defends the Ars as containing “nothing that allows a charge of misbehavior” (nullum crimen). 13
Alluding to Sulpicia in Amores 3.14
20Ovid, however, seems to voice criticisms of love poetry by another Roman woman well before both his banishment and even the Ars itself. For he evidently wrote Amores 3.14 soon after the passage, in 18 BCE, of Augustus’ “moral legislation”, which increased the penalties for extra-marital sexual activity by and with married and marriageable Roman women.14 This poem features a first-person male speaker who faults an unnamed female addressee for discussing her sexual feelings and misbehavior in a frank and forthright manner. In it Ovid employs language and themes that figure prominently in Sulpicia’s poetry. The affinities with Sulpicia’s poems, and the context in which these affinities occur, indeed suggest that he is here obliquely critiquing Sulpicia’s outspoken mode of celebrating her illicit love affair, and rebuking her in the persona of an emotionally wounded lover.
21For example, Amores 3.14 employs four forms of the verb peccare, “to commit a moral transgression, misbehave sexually,” within its first eleven lines. Here its speaker agrees to endure the sexual misbehavior of his female addressee, but pleads with her to deny her misbehavior in public. Sulpicia uses this same verb – with peccasse iuvat, “it delights me to have already misbehaved sexually” – at [Tibullus] 3.13.9. She does so after enjoining her readers without love affairs of their own to share her experiences vicariously, while proclaiming to the public that she and her lover have physically consummated their passion.
22So, too, having observed that only sexual misbehavior publicly acknowledged makes a woman famosa, “subject of ill rumors”, in line 6, the speaker of Amores 3.14 begs his addressee to spare her fama, “what is rumored, reputation”, in line 36. He then notes in line 17-18 and 21-22 that while there is no need for pudor,” shame”, during private lovemaking, pudor should be displayed before others. He also tells her in line 27 to put on a modest facial expression, vultus. Sulpicia uses the word fama twice in [Tibullus] 3.13, along with pudor and vultus as well : first to assert that the fama, “rumor”, that she had covered up her affair would cause her more shame, pudor, than the rumor that she had disclosed it ; then to state that she will not put a respectable face, vultus, on her conduct for the sake of fama.
23In Amores 3.14 Ovid also repeatedly refers to verba, words, of his female addressee. He mentions her voces, phrases, in line 25 too. It is, in fact, Ovid’s emphasis on the language of this woman, and its celebration of her misbehavior, that suggests that his poet-speaker is himself addressing a female poet. And it is the intertextualities, both verbal and thematic similarities, between this poem and the Sulpicia elegies, that render her the most likely candidate for this role. Another apparent allusion to Sulpicia’s work in Amores 3.14 is the reference to tabellae, writing tablets, in line 11 ; echoes of Catullus’ poems 51 and 85 in lines 36-40 warrant attention as well. Sulpicia speaks of her unwillingness to entrust the details of her love affair to sealed tablets, signatis tabellis, at 3.13.7, and frequently evokes Catullus’ verses.15 To be sure, Ovid’s dramatic scenario in this poem, as so often in the Amores, involves a substantial amount of fictionalizing, far more than we encounter in his autobiographical poems from exile. But even though Ovid may distance himself from his poet-speaker, his critique of Sulpicia’s frankness about her sexual misconduct in her poetic self-portrayal is strong and significant.
Alluding to Sulpicia and identifying with Sappho in the Ars Amatoria
24Ovid continues to evoke Sulpicia, when adopting the voice of an erotic instructor, in Ars Amatoria Book 3, which predates, and may well have provoked, his banishment. And to much the same effect. When advising his female audience about how, and how not, to adorn themselves in lines 29-30, Ovid calls to mind the description of Sulpicia’s jewelry at Tibullus 3.8.19-20. Although Sulpicia there receives praise for wearing “whatever gems the dark man of India, near the waters of the dawn, gathers from the shore of the Red Sea” (quascumque niger rubro de litore gemmas/proximus Eois colligit Indus aquis ), Ovid here tells his women readers not to “weigh down your ears with expensive stones, which the differently hued man of India gathers in the green water”(non caris aures onerate lapillis,/quos legit in virididecolor Indus aqua). His choice of words, especially Indus and aqua, suggests that he is not merely echoing but also taking issue with what Sulpicia’s poetry represents as a key component of her physical appeal.
25No Roman women appear in Ovid’s roster, at Ars Amatoria 3. 329 ff, of the poets that he would have his female audience read to enhance their erotic appeal. As observed earlier, Sappho is among the five Greek poets on this list, described with the words quid enim lascivius illa, “what is more sexually playful than she ?” But he only mentions the love poets Propertius, Gallus, and Tibullus, and the epic poets Varro of Atax and Vergil as recommended Latin authors. Furthermore, at lines 339-348, Ovid expresses the hope that his own name will be added to theirs, owing to the erotic value of his Ars Amatoria, Amores and Heroides, letters in elegiac verse from legendary women to their male lovers.
26We will return to the implications of Ovid’s self-promotional statement here, to consider how it may explain why a woman appears in his list of Greek, but not Roman, poets recommended to his female readers here. First, however, we should consider the context in which he offers these reading recommendations, immediately after his advice, at lines 312 ff., that women learn to sing and accompany themselves on musical instruments. Here Ovid insists that his female readers merely repeat words they have “heard in marble theaters, and songs to Egyptian melodies,” and says nothing about composing words of their own. Since he praises the poetry of Sappho, and later reveals – in Tristia 3.7 – that he himself has taught poetry writing to the young woman he calls Perilla, it is noteworthy that he does not raise this as a possibility.
27It also merits notice that Ovid returns to the topic of poets at lines 403 ff. of Ars Amatoria 3, after he has counseled his female readers about dancing, dice-playing board games, and places in Rome to meet men. Here, when discussing the desirability of being known, he claims that fama, “being known”, “renown”, is all that poets seek. This discussion eventually leads to advice, in lines 468 ff., on how women should write to their lovers on wooden tablets, tabellis. As we have observed, in Tibullus 3.13, Sulpicia twice employs the word fama while emphasizing her own erotic communications on such tablets, and while voicing the hope that her love affair will become known through her poetry, and shared vicariously by her loveless readers.
28Ovid may, therefore, also be alluding to Sulpicia’s poetry in lines 479 ff., where he advises women on what words and sentiments to employ when communicating with their lovers on tablets. In 475-476 he urges a female addressee not to promise (promitte) yourself as an easy conquest, nor to deny what you lover asks ; in 479-490 he tells her to use ordinary, accessible language. He apparently approves of the phrase, lux mea, “light of my life,” which is found twice in the Sulpicia elegies, at [Tibullus] 3.9.15 and 3.18.1. At least he wonders, in lines 523-524, if a glum, sexually unresponsive figure of Greek myth, Tecmessa, would have called her husband Ajax lux mea, or used “words which are in the habit of pleasing a lover”.16
29Nonetheless, with these remarks Ovid’s praeceptoramoris here seems to criticize Sulpicia’s words and sentiments. For Sulpicia not only promises her lover shared physical joys in 3.9 and 11, but also characterizes them at 3.13.5 as what the goddess Venus has made and fulfilled (exsolvit promissa Venus). If Ovid is again obliquely faulting Sulpicia and her poetry, her absence from his list of recommended readings becomes more comprehensible.
30Why, though, does Ovid, when adopting the role of love-teacher in the Ars, extol his own writings, the Heroides among them, rather than list a Roman woman poet comparable to Sappho as worthwhile reading for women eager to enhance their amatory appeal ? His words elsewhere in this poem may furnish a clue. While providing advice about communicating on wooden tablets, Ovid recommends that women disguise the identities of illicit lovers by writing in deceptive ways. One tactic that he suggests, in lines 497-498, is “when you write, let your male lover always be described as a woman, and let who was he become she in your messages” (femina dicatur scribenti semper amator:/illa sit in vestris, qui fuit ille, notis). This idea of representing, in writing, a man as a woman warrants emphasis in view of how Ovid portrays Sappho in both Tristia 2 and in Heroides 15, a letter from Sappho to her younger male lover Phaon. It is also of a piece with the ambiguities in his representation of Sappho as a lover and love instructor.17
31For, as we have seen, when writing in propria persona at Tristia 2.365-366, Ovid portrays Sappho as teaching girls how to love, or teaching how to love girls, without indicating that Sappho and her poetry portray love among women. At Heroides15.15-20, adopting Sappho’s own voice, he has Sappho enumerate various women who no longer hold any appeal for her, concluding with “another hundred whom I have loved without the charge of wrongdoing” (sine crimine).” But this Sappho does not elaborate on the nature of this love. She merely says that Phaon alone now possesses multarum quod fuit : “what was of many women”, or “what was for many women”. In other words, Ovid downplays and refashions the tradition that Sappho instructed women how to love one another, representing her in this poem primarily as an advocate of women’s love by and for men.
32What is more, if – according to Ovid – a male lover can and should be fictionally represented as a woman, why not Ovid himself ? His advice that women desirous of deceiving represent a male lover as a female casts further light on what he has Sappho declare at Heroides 15.79-80 : molle meum levibusque cor est violabile telis,/et semper causa est, cur ego semper amem, “my heart is soft, and damageable by light weapons, and there is always a reason why I always love.” As scholars have noted, these lines recall the earlier Amores 2.4,10, where the poet-speaker proclaims : centum sunt causae cur semper amem, “there are a hundred reasons why I always love.” 18 What is more, they are themselves recalled in lines 65-68 of Ovid’s autobiographical Tristia 4.10, where he says of himself : molle Cupidineis nec inexpugnabile telis/cor mihi, quodque levis causa moveret, erat, “my heart was soft and not unassailable by Cupid’s weapons, the sort of thing which a slight impulse would move.”
33Consequently, Ovid represents Sappho as he had represented his fictionalized poetic self in the Amores, and as he would later represent himself when acquainting his future readership with “the facts” of his life. Other details in Heroides 15 similarly allow the inference that he is portraying Sappho as his own, present-day, Roman female alter ego. Among them are the echoes of earlier Latin poetry, particularly that of Catullus, in Sappho’s words, and the use of his own, signature, elegiac meter for Sappho’s words.19 Expressing, in Ars Amatoria 3, a hope that the Heroides – including his own fictional letter in the persona of Sappho – will eventually rank along with works by the dead Latin poets recommended to his female readers may be Ovid’s indirect way of recommending that women read him, and regard him, as a Roman female love poet.
34Heroides 15. 79-80, and the descriptions of Ovid – as poet-speaker in the Amores, and as self-revelatory autobiographer – that they resemble, underscore Sappho’s, and Ovid’s, erotic vulnerability. Like his words to the young female poet Perilla in Tristia 3.7, these passages appear to critique his own preoccupation with the topic of love, and his portrayal of himself as a vulnerable lover and opinionated amatory expert. They may also explain, if not excuse, why he does not have more to say, at least directly, about love poetry by Roman women.